Getting The Antenna Up In The Air
The decision to break Deep Fringe Antenna Installation into two parts was triggered by a missing part early this evening. The fact that it was missing was due to poor product knowledge on the part of the man who sold me our antenna at Radio Shack yesterday, but there turned out to be plenty of material for two Hubs anyway, so….
My sisters and I grew up without TV in our parents’ home, although for part of that time we got to see TV shows on other people’s sets. One aunt and uncle had an early black and white set, and on rare occasion Dad would drive us all six miles to town to watch Lawrence Welk in their living room. A neighbor two miles in the other direction also acquired a set by the time I was fifteen. Dad and I would on very rare occasion head down there to watch the Wednesday night fights. Ah, good times….
When I was twenty-one, my first wife and I got our first TV set, an eleven inch black and white, on which she watched soap operas and I watched George Blanda rescue the Oakland Raiders in game after game. At first, we pulled in signals with nothing but rabbit ear antennas. A tall-masted outdoor antenna was really hitting the big time; cable and/or satellite TV remained far, far, in the unimaginable future.
Now, as Pam and I have settled in on our off grid Arizona acreage near the Mexican border, cable TV is not available and we have chosen to avoid the satellite TV providers such as DirecTV and DishNet. Currently on a fixed income (though I’m still hunting additional work), we can’t afford those $100 monthly bills. (Ever notice how the initial offer is, say, $60 per month or so, yet a year later you’re somehow paying a bunch more than that?) We did try watching television on my laptop computer, but the satellite Internet providers have something they call Fair Access Policy. I call it FAKE Access Policy because the bottom line is a bottleneck on the amount of bandwidth a given customer is allowed.
Bottom Line: Write one article a day, even at the highest priced package available, and you will never be able to watch a single soap opera. Write nothing and you will–roughly one soap or a show like Survivor every other day–but still nothing to brag about.
Okay, having made the decision to install an antenna, the first step is to decide: Which antenna?
The Long Shot
A number of evenings rummaging around on the Internet produced some valuable findings, the most essential of these being a website known as tv fool dot com. It’s a free tool that helps people figure out just how much antenna is necessary for their exact locations. Plugging in our homestead’s spot on the planet produced several critical findings:
1. All but one of the Tucson TV stations in which we are interested lie on the same exact compass heading–meaning that for those, we won’t have to move the antenna at all once we have it zeroed in. Not only that, but the only remaining station of interest requires shifting the antenna by just one degree…and even then, we don’t care that much about that particular station. Most likely, we’ll lock things down on that multi-station heading and forget it.
2. All of the above stations are nearly at the same distance from us, the closest being at 80.0 air miles, the farthest at 81.8 air miles. This is important because of gain–which we’ll discuss in Part Two of this Hub series.
3. While the stations vary dramatically in the power they’re putting out, there’s no question the at-our-home signal strength is strong enough for some of them and maybe strong enough for all of them…if we use the most no-kidding antenna available with the longest working range.
4. All of the stations are broadcasting on the UHF band only. In my younger days, the heavy hitters were all operating on VHF and UHF was a joke, but things change. Digital TV signals apparently do better via UHF.
5. Bottom line: We had a decent chance at getting decent reception. Whew! Not like our former survival cabin in Montana where we lived from 1999 through much of 2002. That acreage was down in a small valley, a “hole in the mountains” where it was satellite TV or nothing.
Armed with this data, it was time to do massive Internet searches for any antenna that could pull in a workable UHF signal at a range of, say, 100 miles. That’s when things got tough. Radio Shack used to have one such, the VU-190-XR, but it’s been discontinued. Wal-Mart’s website told a different version of the same story. After some days of digging, though, the 91XG by Antennas Direct looked like a winner. That is, until the supplier I chose as being the most helpful over the phone, Warren Electronics (a gentleman named Kevin cleared up numerous questions in jig time)…well, yes, they did stock the 91XG, but, um, they were out at the moment, be a week or so….
Fooey. Refusing to be totally bummed, I fired up the Subaru Outback and headed to Sierra Vista. At least I could get started, buy the mast–I’d settled on fifteen feet of height after talking with Kevin.
As it turns out, miracles do happen: There are two Radio Shack stores in Sierra Vista. One of them was the first to inform me that the VU-190-XR had been dumped, no longer available, sorry dude, ho hum. The other Radio Shack, as it worked out, ended up being the place where I acquired the mast…and they had a VU-190-XR sitting on a high shelf. I didn’t have the money available to buy it that day but got Jerry’s promise (he’s the owner) to hold it overnight. That night, I went online and read more than a hundred reviews of that model. About 80 percent hated it. The other 20 percent considered it the best antenna ever made.
Since it looked like a lot of the antenna failures might have been due to owner error, and since the antenna was Here Now…antenna selected!
Kitten Precious sat in the sink during most of the antenna selection hours.
Where And How The Antenna Will Be Mounted
Where you intend to place the antenna is of course a serious consideration during the first step, i.e. selecting which antenna to use. In this case, discussion of location has been left until Step Two for the sake of simplicity and brevity.
The most secure spot imaginable would be the attic…that is, if the greater range only available to an outdoor antenna is not needed, and if you have an attic in the first place. Which, living in a camp trailer, we most certainly do not. Fortunately, neither do we live in a neighborhood where covenants and fussy neighbors prohibit this, that, and the other thing. At first, my thought was to screw mounting brackets onto the side of the trailer, since that’s where the TV set will be used.
It didn’t take long to realize that would be a dumb move. Yes, our camper is on blocks and pretty solid in the fierce winds we get here as a matter of course. But there the advantages end. This little RV is pretty aged as such things go. Even the framing for the walls consist of downright tiny chunks of wood, small enough that they might well split out easily if they could even be found, not to mention dry rotted here and there. This place keeps the rain off and the flies out, but it’s doubtful it would long keep the antenna up.
That meant the only logical mounting arrangement would have to involve a dedicated post planted three feet in the ground. Pam admires the way I build, and–being a typical husband in this regard at least–I deeply appreciate that admiration. The idea is, if I put something up, it should take at least a small atomic bomb to bring it down. After reading the next few paragraphs, you may come to believe I over-build. Yup. Guilty as charged. But the bookcase I built in high school shop around 1958 or 1959 is still going strong, so….
One post hole and a trip to Home Depot later, we had our antenna-holder up and ready to receive the mast. In order to make the mounting post strong enough to ignore any wind-boosted leverage the antenna might apply (as well as stable enough from every direction to resist warping over time), I went with not one but two treated 4″ x 6″ beams in 12 foot lengths. Using treated wood is necessary if rotting out the in-ground portion is to be avoided, and two were also necessary because one was simply not wide enough to accept the mounting brackets properly.
Getting The Post In The Ground
During the times the post hole was absorbing enough water to make the caliche soil diggable, I assembled the two-beam post in an L-shaped design. Half a dozen 5/16″ lag bolts (called lag screws at Home Depot) in 6 inch length did the connecting, preceeded by drilling 3/16″ pilot holes with a lo-ong drill bit specially purchased for that purpose. After that (again with pilot holes), three antenna mast mount brackets were screwed down tight to the wide outside face of the oddly shaped post.
Three brackets seemed advisable because of the fact that with one mast piece being 5 feet long and the other one being 10 feet long, and with one simply slipping into the other (as they are designed to do) to a depth of four inches…hey, at the connecting point, they are made to be a touch loose and sloppy. Using a third bracket just a bit above the connection–in other words, near the lower end of the 10 foot piece–ensures a totally motionless lockdown that won’t let the huge antenna (and this one is huge) “wiggle” on high.
With all that done, plus the post placed into the hole and dirt firmly tamped all around, and with the end of the mast jammed firmly into the earth for a few inches (to aid both stability and grounding, though a separate groundwire is also advisable), the arrangement was ready to receive the antenna itself.
Now For The Mast And The Antenna Itself
Before starting to prepare the actual antenna, it was time to secure the mast pole to the post. Not much to that; the Radio Shack mounts came with a self-explanatory sketch that made the process both simple and quick.
As for prepping the antenna, it may well be that every model and/or make of antenna is different. When it came to the VU-190-XR specifically, things turned out to be mostly simple with a dash of necessary head scratching and one actual glitch that was not the antenna’s fault and will be described in a moment. This was a unit that had been purchased before–or at least it certainly looked that way. The long cardboard box was taped shut, only holes remaining where once had lived a number of large copper staples, one of the plastic bags containing small parts had been torn open for access, and the owner’s manual was missing. The assembly instruction sheet was present and accounted for, though, as were all the parts. so we were good to go.
The manufacturer recommends that two men work together on this assembly (no mention of women) and is adamant about the need to put the thing together on the ground. As for the two-man thing, I work best alone, and Pam (more man than most gender-correct men) was working on a different project, so fooey on them. The entire antenna covers a lot of ground but weighs no more than ten pounds or so; what’s the point?
By putting it together “on the ground”, they must mean it would be dumb to try piecing it together up there above the roofline…but it cannot literally be put together on the ground without a number of fragile aluminum elements being stressed with the antenna’s total weight. Propping one end up on a set of steps took care of that problem, and for the most part, assembly was no big. The elements swing out smoothly and snaplock into place easily, and at least some of the instructions are easy to follow.
The exceptions were: (1) There was a long piece of what looked like a chunk of boom, but no explanation of where it fit into the overall picture. Intuition solved that one eventually, as certain holes would quite obviously match up. The piece turned out to be a “lower boom” which bolts onto the mast just like the main boom and gives the main boom a whole bunch of much needed aerial stability. (2) The antenna lead terminals were clearly mentioned, but not exactly what they looked like and not a word about where they were located. This actually led to the one big glitch of the day: The seller and I had believed these terminals would be close to the mast, but they weren’t…and we didn’t actually open up the box to look for ourselves. Thus, I’d acquired a 2 foot piece of coax to run from the terminals to the preamp…but it turned out that a five foot piece (at minimum) will be necessary.
More about preamps and coax in Part Two. One-handing the 160-inch-long skyboat while easing up the ladder, I found to my delight (and a bit of relief) that the top of an L-shaped post makes a dandy standing step. After slipping the two mounting clamps over the mast and down a few inches, then tightening them with a ratchet and deepwell socket so that the antenna wouldn’t spin like a top in the wind, it was time to call it a night. We’ll pick up the right length of RG-6 coax tomorrow and hopefully be ready to write Part Two tomorrow night while watching free TV from Tucson.